Edvard Munch's The Scream expected to fetch $80m at Sotheby's auction


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It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own one of the world's most famous images: a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Unfortunately for fans of the painting – which features an open-mouthed man standing with his hands clutched to his head against a blood red sky – experts believe the eventual sale price at an auction in Sotheby's in New York on Wednesday night could end up on the wrong side of $80m.

Yet by Thursday morning, someone will be the proud new owner of the 1895 painting, which is one of only four versions of the work in existence and widely praised as the best.

"It is a unique chance for someone or some museum to acquire this version. It is the crown jewel of the four, but you really need a national budget to buy it. And not the budget of a small country either," said Mark Winter, director of Munch Experts, a company which specialises in appraising and valuing works by the Norwegian expressionist.

The Scream is one of a handful of artistic images that have crossed over from the world of high art to popular culture. It has inspired film references, including the knife-wielding villain of the Scream slasher movies, and the aftershave scene in Home Alone where Macaulay Culkin imitates the painting's famous pose. It is also greatly celebrated by the therapy industry for its horrific depiction of stress and terror.

"This is not a beautiful landscape in Surrey or a harbour on the French Riviera. It is a representation of extreme anxiety. Imagine if a shrink in London had this on their wall. It's a fantastic painting for their profession. Of course, they could not afford it," said Winter.

This version is the only one whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem – which explains the work's inspiration – where Munch described himself "shivering with anxiety" and feeling "the great scream in nature". It is being sold by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of Munch, and proceeds of the sale will fund a new museum, art centre and hotel in Hvitsten, Norway, where Olsen's father and Munch were neighbours.

If, as expected, it sells for $80m at the auction in New York on Wednesday night, it will be one of the most expensive paintings in history – though still a relative bargain compared to Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold in 2010 for $106.5m. Yet even that hefty price tag feels like a snip compared to the $250m paid by oil-rich Qatar to snag Cézanne's The Card Players for a new art museum. Details of that deal only emerged this year, but it was struck in 2011.

Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's impressionist and modern art department in New York, said the work was one of the most important to ever emerge from private hands on to the open market. "This is one of the very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global icon. The Scream arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived," he said.

The auction begins tonight at 7pm ET.